A Translational Approach to Identify Biomarkers of COVID-19-related Social Stress in Healthcare Workers

2020 Award: $85,000

Psychosocial stress is ubiquitous in modern societies and – especially when excessive or persistent – can lead to several psychiatric disorders, including major depressive, post-traumatic stress, and anxiety disorders. As we have all observed in the news recently, one of the most vulnerable populations in the COVID-19 pandemic is our healthcare providers. Our research will integrate human studies and preclinical mouse models of social stress to understand how persistent social stress affects this population.

Need/Problem: Stress-related psychiatric disorders, including major depressive, post-traumatic stress, and anxiety disorders, are the most common mental illnesses in the United States. With the recent COVID-19 pandemic, both the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institute of Health (NIH) predict that the number of people suffering from trauma and stress-related disorders will rise dramatically and to potentially catastrophic proportions. These disorders are often characterized by an amplified arousal response to stressful stimuli (hyperarousal), which is followed by a motivational drive to avoid such stimuli (avoidance).

Grant Summary: Via this grant, we will integrate our complementary expertise in neuropsychiatric epigenetics (PI Zannas) and the use of animal models in neuroscience (PI Rodriguez-Romaguera) to perform timely, foundational experiments and develop behavioral tasks in both humans and mice that will allow us to assess how social stress drives hyperarousal and avoidance.

Goals & Projected Outcomes: Together these experiments will combine state-of-the-art approaches to dissect the mechanisms of social stress across humans and mice. Importantly, these experiments will also enable us to form, within the UNC Department of Psychiatry, the Carolina Stress Initiative, which will address the urgent call to action needed for research to reduce the worldwide burden of stress-related disease emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, these findings will provide strong preliminary data for multiple grant proposals to be submitted to the NIH.

Anthony Zannas, MD, MSc, PhD

Jose Rodriguez-Romaguera, PhD

Grant Details: Our experiments will focus on health care workers, who are at the forefront of the pandemic, and will involve a News-based COVID-19 Stress Task (NCST), which we will develop and tailor to assess stress responses to pandemic-related social cues. To translate the findings in humans, we will use a preclinical mouse model of social stress where we will also measure hyperarousal and avoidance behavior.